CH2M HILL is an engineering and construction company that can meet seemingly any industrial need. The services it offers touch on wastewater and water resources; transportation; federal facilities and military operations; nuclear, environmental, energy, power, electronics and advanced technologies; pharmaceuticals and biotechnology; manufacturing; chemicals and communications.
Given all this, it’s not surprising CH2M HILL maintains a large workforce: roughly 19,000 employees, 1,200 of those in IT. In fact, CH2M HILL has IT professionals not just for its internal needs but also external ones, as its customers see a need to outsource their IT services.
Mike Bank, director of business development, said this migration of services can occur in several ways.
“We go out and organically look for customers to support, place people with or support their systems on a hosting level or even remotely manage them,” Bank said. “Or we may be supporting a customer for an internal project for another line of business (maybe they’re in the water vertical), or we might be supporting someone else in a financial vertical. It’s the same level of performance — those same systems are applied, whether they’re internally or externally for the company.”
This affects CH2M HILL’s approach to hiring in IT.
“For our business, given the fact that our people are customer-facing, the biggest factor we look for is relevant experience and success in similar projects to that of our customers,” said Shawn Audino, vice president of business development for CH2M HILL’s managed services group.
This leads the company to seek IT professionals who have worked in a variety of industries, Bank said.
“We weight an individual coming in who has experience across multiple industries,” he said. “They might be a very good architect, but if they come to us saying, ‘I’ve worked in the financial industry for 15 years — that’s where I grew up, and that’s the only language I know,’ we would take somebody else who maybe had 12 years’ experience across three different industries because they can leverage those different skills. We have so many diverse product offerings, we need to target to every single vertical that’s out there in the market.”
Once an IT pro is onboard, the range of industry functions CH2M HILL tackles makes for a similarly varied spectrum of jobs roles and responsibilities. The individuals who are with the company in IT full time span many disciplines.
“Vertically, you have different subject-matter experts in different technologies, whether it’s wide-area networks, servers, infrastructure, remote management, help desk, database, ERP — we could go on and on,” Bank said. “And then horizontally, they will work in terms of assessments and perform such duties as integration and management of systems and ongoing maintenance.”
With such a variety of opportunity at CH2M HILL, the trajectory of an IT professional’s career is largely at that person’s own prerogative.
“The upward potential in our company obviously is based a lot on what an individual wants to do,” Audino said. “We’ve seen a lot of promotion within our company, where people will start at the help-desk level, then they have an interest in network or security or some other function within our company. While they’re at the help desk, they’ll get the required certifications to move up into another group.”
Not surprisingly, moving higher than strictly technical services at CH2M HILL requires soft skills.
“As far as getting into management, a lot of it is based on their ability to not just be good technically but also to manage people and understand other aspects of the business — just like with any other business,” Audino said. “As we’ve grown as a company, having good technical people is one thing, but also having good technical people who can communicate effectively and can work well with customers and others is obviously a big piece, especially to grow within the management ranks of our IT group.”
CH2M HILL looks for all its IT employees to have good project management skills, ranging from the help-desk level to the Oracle-database level. Most of the IT employees work in teams over the course of a year, very rarely placing one person on just one small job.
“Typically, the jobs we’re doing involve, at a minimum, four or five subject-matter experts, so it’s important to be able to work within a team, be aware of a project plan in general and be flexible and able to put in a certain level of effort if the project is running behind,” Bank said. “They’re not caught in their own silo — they’re aware of what their other team members are doing, how they’re delivering on time, and they have the personal skills to interact with one another.”
CH2M HILL is aware that continuous learning is particularly important within IT because the industry moves so rapidly. The company provides tuition reimbursement and pays for certifications, provided the IT employee passes the test in question.
It also uses real-world, on-the-job, in-house training. One of CH2M HILL’s preferred methods for real-world training is to give a junior-level IT employee a leg up into a more complex project.
“We might have an advanced project that involves five senior-level subject-matter experts and bring in a midlevel or junior employee to take on a small part of that,” Bank said. “The most important thing is their shoulders are getting exposure to a real scenario. You can go out and do a class, you can study at home, you can do it online, but it never gives you that real experience in life with a real customer. So, the both of those coupled together really complete a comprehensive training program in our eyes.”
It all comes back to the fact that CH2M HILL’s IT pros are customer-facing. For this reason, the company places the highest priority on experience rather than education and certification because it knows an employee with real-world experience will ramp up to a functional level immediately.
“For us, the fact that a new IT person needs to hit the ground running pretty quickly and deal with customer issues quickly, we weight the experience factor much more heavily,” Audino said.
This is not to say certification isn’t a factor at CH2M HILL — it is. In many situations, it’s even a requirement.
“We do require that an individual have a certain level of certification beyond just entry level,” Audino said.
“With VoIP [voice-over Internet protocol] for example, it might be two or three functional areas within that discipline coordinated within our advance technology services. Certification just demonstrates that the individual has knowledge within that certain skill set. That may not be the exact skill set that we’re looking for, or it may demonstrate that there is some level of knowledge in a specific function that we’re looking for — being able to order hardware, being able to touch that hardware after it’s installed.”
When it comes to certifications as they deal with specific technologies and manufacturers, CH2M HILL, as with many companies, has an agnostic approach.
“We have an internal standardized support structure in terms of software and hardware, but our customers at any time may come to us with a project that involves a smattering of manufacturers and software providers,” Bank said. “So, in looking at a candidate interviewing with us, if they have cross-technology and manufacturer experience in certifications, we will rate that individual higher.”
A Little Advice
Bank said the market for IT professionals has changed over the last decade or so.
“Back in the mid-’90s, you would have individuals that would come right out of school, gain a certification without getting any experience and get thrown into a very high-paid position,” Bank said. “Obviously, the job market was a little bit different back then. From the perspective of people coming to the professional careers market with just a certification, it was, ‘Oh great — you’re qualified. I’ll just plug you in, and I’ll give you 90 grand.’”
He also said the landscape of IT hiring is different today, and budding professionals should avoid taking an approach that looks for a big, immediate payoff from a certain level of education or certification.
“For an individual making a position change or even coming right out of school, I would say instead of going after your master’s and then your CCIE [Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert], mesh that with experience,” Bank said. “Gain an entry or a midlevel position with an organization within that skill or that subject-matter discipline that you’re looking at and take that certification class on your own time (at night or on the weekend). Leverage an organization that will help fund that, based on the successful outcome of that certification. That’s what employers today are looking for more than anything else.”
– Daniel Margolis, firstname.lastname@example.org